I remember once going to the beach on a school field trip. We went to Sandy Hook on probably the worst day. There had just been a terrible storm, the likes of which blew hundreds of jellyfish onto the shore, waiting to die and become food for the gulls. We looked at the ocean on this inopportune day from a distance, for my teacher, whose face is now but a smudge in my mind, did not allow us to go onto the beach. Across the water, I could see nothing. The earth swelled on the horizon, obscuring whatever could have been further out at sea beyond my vision. At this moment, inhabiting that memory, as someone deeply inhales the scents trapped in the old clothes of the long-lost, I can imagine the understanding that nothing existed across the Atlantic and that it was impossible to cross. We hear that Columbus believed the world was smaller, and this was true, but mathematicians had known the diameter of the Earth and knew that it would be impossible for someone to cross the ends of the planet which the Atlantic Ocean represented.
Flash forward almost ten years, and I’m on a flight climbing fast out of JFK. New York City and Long Island are but an amalgamation of pretty orange lights, arranged into what seems to me to be the veins of mint leaves. As I try to read my book, I peek out occasionally to see the city slowly disappearing from my field of vision, swallowed up by a blackness which I can only imagine to be the Atlantic Ocean. The second time I look back, I can only see a vague collection of orange, an amoebic figure in the corner of the sky. The third time, I see nothing.
I did not think that the Atlantic Ocean would end for it was all I saw for several hours. With time, I found it more and more difficult to concentrate on my book, and I put it down in an attempt to get some rest. When my body only allowed me to sleep for thirty or so minutes, I found myself stealing glances at the blackness of the ocean from behind my complimentary sleep-mask. In my mind, there is not much distance between Europe and the United States, for on a map, one can stretch their thumb between the two continents. The United States seems so much larger than the rest of the world — a reality I began to question when it took nearly four hours to finish flying from Morocco to Dakar which was relatively negligible in my ignorance. Yet, as I gazed out of my plane, my body, inert, rocketing at several hundreds of miles an hour several thousands of miles above the sea, I began to realize the gravity of the adventure I had just embarked upon. I realized that I was soon to be further away from my parents than I had ever been in a country I knew little about in which business was conducted in a language that I had little confidence speaking. In those moments, I switched places with the child who stared breathlessly at the expanse of the Atlantic, at the gravity of the world’s immensity. The travel nurse’s warnings to me about all of the terrible maladies I could get which could so easily extinguish my life played over and over again to the beat of my increasing heart rate. In a rehearsed motion, I closed my eyes – still blindfolded – and said my gibberish mantra and the words “all is well.”
After a brief layover in Paris, I arrived in Dakar after another long flight, this time over land and a bit of sea. Spain seemed like a mass of jagged glass from the distance over which we flew, and I believe I woke up from a brief nap somewhere near the coast of Andalucia, the Mediterranean seeming somewhat pallid and quiet. Then we delved into the thick of it before Morocco came and went, followed by the disputed territories of Western Sahara, all of which I assumed only from the flight map which updated every few minutes or so. In reality, the camera on the plane only revealed a mass of sand dunes which, like the Atlantic, seemed infinite.
Dakar is the westernmost point in Afro-Eurasia. No other point on this continental body is closer to the United States, to home, than this city in a relatively unknown country called Senegal. The city is on its own peninsula, Cap-Vert, a hangnail of the African continent which juts out into the Atlantic. A statue in the city, the African Renaissance Monument, the largest in all of Africa, depicts a child pointing out across the water towards les États-Unis. My only connections to home now are my passport, social media and a few Skype credits I’ve accrued.
Why Senegal? I admit, it’s off the beaten path of study abroad destinations. Even now, writing this from my room at my hostel, my suitcase packed to meet my host mother and father tomorrow, I question how much easier my life may have been if I had study in Grenoble or Rouen like I had planned freshman year. Yet, I told myself that I would be coming here to “find myself” in the most typical of ways and I remain steadfast in those plans. Somewhere in this country, I will discover a truth which I would never have seen in France or Belgium or Switzerland. As they say in Senegal, inch’Allah.
I am optimistic of the future, here in sunny Dakar. Optimistic about learning new things, experiencing a new culture, and discovering new nuances to my character. The mythical call of Africa which has been in my ear for months now is gone, for I’m here now, in the land of my ancestors.
Tomorrow I will go to the beach and use the compass on my phone to locate where my family is in the United States, across the unfathomable belly of the Atlantic. And if I see that kid, somehow, across the sea, I’ll whisper over the waves “all is well.”